Why unexploded bombs are an expensive—and dangerous—problem

Inside one band’s struggle to clear its land of old military ordnance

A warning sign on the Goose Lake Range in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. Many unexploded explosive ordnance are still on the range which is owned by the Okanagan Indian Band Reserve. (Photograph by Jason Franson)

A warning sign on the Goose Lake Range in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. Many unexploded explosive ordnance are still on the range which is owned by the Okanagan Indian Band Reserve. (Photograph by Jason Franson)

A modest concrete war memorial sits outside the Okanagan Indian Band offices near Vernon, B.C., a reminder of heroism, loss and of a lingering threat that even today casts a dark shadow on the rugged beauty of their reserve lands. The names of band members who served in Canada’s conflicts are etched in black marble slabs. There are four Tronsons (Harry, James, Agnes and Edward); four Brewers (Art, Herbert, Riley and William); five Simpsons (Bert, Clarence, Ernest, Harvey and Tom). There are Steeles, Parkers and Harrises, and single representatives of other families—men like George McLean, a veteran of both the Boer War and First World War. The citation for McLean’s Distinguished Conduct Medal, earned for a daring solo grenade attack during the battle of Vimy Ridge, reads: “Single-handed he captured 19 prisoners, and later, when attacked by five more prisoners who attempted to reach a machine gun, he was able—although wounded—to dispose of them unaided, thus saving a large number of casualties.”

This is a tiny band. Even today there are just 2,000 members. Back then it was considerably smaller. Indians were exempt from conscription, denied as most were even the basic citizenship right of the vote until 1960, but it is said that every man in the band who was fit and available volunteered to serve. It is a point of pride here.

But the band continues to pay the price for another contribution—as do other bands across the country. Portions of reserve lands were appropriated as far back as a century ago by what is now the Department of National Defence (DND), for use as artillery and tank ranges, mortar fields and other live-fire training exercises. It’s doubtful members had much say in the matter. Such contracts were handled by white Indian agents who managed, or mismanaged, most band business dealings. Almost a century of military use has left some 2,800 hectares of Okanagan band land seeded with a lethal harvest of buried unexploded ordnance, known in military terms as UXOs. It has rendered prime development areas with rangeland vistas and spectacular views of the resort mecca of Okanagan Lake largely useless for anything but grazing lands for cattle and horses. Over the years, accidental explosions on DND training sites here, and elsewhere, have resulted in several civilian deaths and injuries.

Although the Army vacated its training facilities here by 1991, attempts at cleanups—including one under way this fall—have been sporadic at best, denying the band millions in potential development revenue as well as badly needed land for housing, says Chief Byron Louis. “Most of the land that we’re looking at that has high economic value is also these lands that have a lot of unexploded ordnance,” he says.

The band has contributed more than its share of wartime sacrifice, he says. A reminder of that sits beside the war memorial: the remains of a tank turret ripped apart by shell-fire, part of the targets used on a tank range on band lands near Madeline Lake. “We have a long history of a relationship with the Crown,” says the chief. “Our people have the belief that we’re allies.”

The bill for that relationship is long overdue, one that would reach into the billions, if DND were to make a concerted effort to cleanup its mess on First Nation lands, and hundreds of other UXO sites across Canada and off-shore. “It is important to understand that cleaning up unexploded ordnance is phenomenally expensive, even by environmental standards,” warns an analysis by retired Canadian Forces Maj. Jeff Lewis, a former engineering officer. “Today, UXOs are ‘flying under the radar,’ with relatively few news stories dedicated to them because they impact so few people,” Lewis writes in a 2010 issue of the Canadian Military Journal. “However, as the population base sprawls outwards from our cities, pressure will build to allow residential property development on former military property.”

Okanagan Indian Band members, from left, Joseph Jack, Chief Byron Louis, Bruce Weaver, Councillor Russell Williams and UXO Liaison Don Louis look over a hole where the search for an unexploded explosive ordnance has taken place on the Goose Lake range, in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. (Photograph by Jason Frason)

Okanagan Indian Band members, from left, Joseph Jack, Chief Byron Louis, Bruce Weaver, Councillor Russell Williams and UXO Liaison Don Louis look over a hole where the search for an unexploded explosive ordnance has taken place on the Goose Lake range, in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. (Photograph by Jason Frason)

The search for unexploded munitions is slow, tedious, cautious work, with occasional moments of high drama. A 120-hectare section of a former mortar range on Okanagan band land has been scanned by high-intensity metal detection equipment, yielding some 10,000 hits, tracked by GPS coordinates and marked with blue flags. Each of those has to be carefully excavated by a team led by Wolfgang Kaske, an ex-German army bomb-disposal technician, and a veteran project manager for Ottawa-based Notra, which holds a $500,000 explosives-management contract for this preliminary clearance effort.

This late fall day proceeds more cautiously than usual. Kaske has received last-minute orders from his skittish military minders in Ottawa not to discuss the clearance operation after they learned a Maclean’s writer and photographer were to tour the site. The chief and band staff are not amused at DND’s presumptuousness. “This is your land, we are visitors here and we respect that,” says an apologetic Kaske, who turns over the tour to Don Louis, a band member who acts as a liaison between DND and the band. Louis travelled south last year for a rigorous month-long UXO technician course under the auspices of Texas A&M University. Three other band members returned this fall from the DND-financed course. The plan is to eventually train 10 band UXO technicians in hopes of winning federal contracts to clear their own land­—a project so daunting it would likely see them all through to retirement.

The template for band-run bomb disposal exists at the Tsuu T’ina First Nation outside Calgary. Members there have waged pitched battles with DND for decades over the UXO cleanup of the former Sarcee Training Area, the Harvey Barracks and other sites. Tsuu T’ina launched its first lawsuit against the federal government in 1982, and litigation continues to this day. By 2004 alone some $73 million had been spent on partial remediation efforts. One positive legacy was the band’s creation, in the mid-1980s, of the Wolf’s Flat Ordnance Disposal Corp. to take charge of its UXO cleanup. It is now a major band employer with an international reputation. The Okanagan band has created a similar corporation, hoping, as it builds capacity, to administer its own remediation efforts. After a safety briefing that includes printed instructions for the most expeditious route to the nearest hospital, a stop-work order is radioed to the team working a distant hillside. The observers pile into vehicles and bounce up the hill, dodging fresh-dug holes, blue flags and random cow paddies.

MAC01_BOMB DISPOSAL_POST05The yield in the early stages of this metal harvest has been, depending on one’s point of view, disappointing. Crews have unearthed no live explosives, just wire, horseshoes and the fins and fuses of spent mortar rounds. Doug Louis shrugs. One never knows what the next hole will yield. “It could be like Madeline Lake,” he says of a dig last year at the tank range, “where we pulled out 10,000 pounds in two acres.” There, a collection of live shells was buried under a couple of tonnes of sand and detonated on site. It made for an impressive display.

The band’s newly minted UXO techs working with Kaske’s experienced crew set down their shovels for a chat. Suzanne Lewis, 53, was thinking of the future when she volunteered to take the course. “I do have three children and two grandchildren. I’d like to make sure they’re in a safe environment,” she says. Her father used to range cattle near Madeline Lake. She remembers as a girl of six or seven picking up what she now knows to be a live mortar. “I walked it to my Dad and asked, what is this? He said, ‘Put it down carefully.’ Why, Dad, what is it? He said again, ‘Put it down, carefully . . . walk backward.’”

Leo Louis, a 52-year-old father of three school-age children, says he hopes his kids will eventually benefit from the band’s clearance efforts. He avoided any found munitions as a child, something that was drilled into him by his father. He’s even more cautious today in his new role as “a bomb guy,” as his kids proudly call him. “You’ve got to know your s–t,” he says. “The thing of it is, our first-aid bag is this big,” he says, indicating the size of a small shoebox. “The reason is there’s nothing going to be left of you if a three-inch mortar goes off.”

Stories abound of band members in earlier days handling abandoned munitions and those heaved up by frost or unearthed by ploughs or erosion. Ranchers would cart them to a rock pile, or toss them to their fence line, or just over their fence line, only to have their neighbours return the favour.

Elder Madeline Gregoire, 76, remembers in her early years finding a live, 60-cm shell partially buried on the site of the Goose Lake range. “It didn’t go off when it went into the ground, so we took it to the army camp,” she recalls. “Boy, they took that bomb and they put it somewhere [safe], because they were really nervous.” They packed it into a truck and hauled it away for detonation. Like many, she’s angered that DND walked away after rendering so much of their lands unusable. “Just because we gave them the rights to practise on it, it does not mean we gave up our rights to it,” she says. “This reserve was nothing but a garbage dump for them.”

MAC01_BOMB DISPOSAL_POST07The risks of lost and abandoned munitions are more than theoretical. A DND report of its Unexploded Explosive Ordnance and Legacy Sites Program activities for 2011 states there have been “10 confirmed UXO-related deaths” on Vernon-area practice range land since the end of the Second World War. Other DND reports put the Vernon-area death toll at seven to nine, more evidence of the lax record-keeping that has made it near impossible to gauge the scope and scale of unexploded munitions. DND’s best guess: 20,000 hecatares of Vernon-area First Nations and privately held lands may be contaminated.

Among the deaths: three men were killed in the spring of 1948 while loading topsoil into a truck. In March 1963, Boy Scout Don Hope, 14, and Cub Scout Grant Morgan, 12, were killed instantly with the explosion of a mortar they’d discovered at a training site used during the Second World War. David Crane, then an 11-year-old Cub, was severely injured by the blast. Though DND paid for his friend’s funerals, Crane received neither compensation nor an apology, though he still bears the lingering pain, shrapnel wounds and trauma, he told the Vancouver Sun in 2013. “I’m probably the youngest war veteran there is from World War II,” he said.

In April 1973, two other children were killed, and two more injured in the blast of what is thought to have been a two-inch mortar. “In addition, many items of unexploded ordnance have been discovered on legacy sites in the area, continuing to the present day,” says a 2007 DND report. “Items include mortars (high explosive and smoke), grenades, detonators, flares, anti-tank munitions, artillery shells and small arms ammunition.” Remarkably, none of the dead were members of the Okanagan band. “We’ve been fortunate,” says Chief Louis. “The thing about luck is: eventually it runs out.”

A 3 inch mortar from the World War I or World War II era  that was found on the Goose Lake range in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. (Photograph by Jason Frason)

A three-inch mortar from the World War I or World War II era that was found on the Goose Lake range in Vernon B.C. , October 27, 2015. (Photograph by Jason Frason)

The chief and council grow increasingly impatient with DND’s evasiveness and its current commitment to a cleanup that is so underfunded it would take decades at the current rate. Currently the Tsuu T’ina and Okanagan band are the only active UXO removal projects on reserve land, says DND spokesman Evan Koronewski. This fiscal year’s budget for all UXO sites in Canada is $6.8 million. The Okanagan band council looks in frustration at nearby developments like the 36-hole Predator Ridge Golf Resort community and the ultra-lux Sparkling Hill wellness resort, and think of the lost opportunities on land that is every bit as spectacular. Darcy Aubin, director of Lands and Economic Development for the band, says attempts to get developers interested in their land usually end in the same way. “As soon as they hear there’s a UXO problem, they walk away. ‘Well, good luck with that. When it’s clean, give us a call.’”

The band’s plight is not unique. The military leased or appropriated reserve land across the country for exercises and training. The terrain was often rugged, isolated, and sparsely populated by band members powerless to thwart the will of the federal government. Just last year the Enoch Cree Nation closed indefinitely for safety reasons their Indian Lake Golf Course west of Edmonton, throwing 50 employees out of work. Chief Ron Morin cited evidence that the military hid the scale of the land’s wartime use as a bombing test range.

In Ontario, the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation have been fighting since the end of the Second World War for the return of about 1,000 hectares of land along Lake Huron appropriated in 1942 under the War Measures Act for a military training ground known as Camp Ipperwash. Now the return of the lands is further delayed by the unexploded ordnance, requiring a clearance project estimated to take 20 years. The department has spent more than $29 million alone on an environmental investigation of the site.

As retired major Lewis warned in his prescient analysis, correcting the military’s sins of the past has saddled the Canadian Forces with a potentially devastating bill. There are “several hundred” confirmed UXO sites on lands across Canada, “with a further 1,100 sites off Canada’s Atlantic coast and 26 off the Pacific.” He cites the example of the U.S. Navy’s decontamination of one rocky, uninhabited 115-sq.-km Hawaiian island used during the war as a training range. It took almost 10 years of clearance and restoration before it was returned to Hawaii in 2003. The cost: US$460 million.

Could this happen in Canada, and how would the Canadian Forces pay for it, Lewis asks. Much depends on how “tolerant” Canadians remain about the danger that lies beneath. “Is a large-scale mandated cleanup likely to occur any time soon? Perhaps not,” he writes. “However, failing to plan for such an eventuality could end up being a very costly error.”

Such a cleanup was not a priority for the previous Conservative government. The budget of the UXO legacy sites cleanup program was cut by 50 per cent with a significant reduction in staff, says a report by the director of ammunition and explosives, delivered last year to the deputy minister of defence and the chief of the defence staff. “Given the very large number of sites that remain for assessment and action, the reduction of budget and personnel, if continued through the medium and long terms, increases the risk posed by the UXO problem to Canadians,” it warned.

In Chief Louis’s experience, DND’s usual strategy is to force disputes into court, grind down opponents, then cut a deal outside the courtroom. “If they’re going to expect us to go to court, don’t expect to meet us on the courthouse steps,” Louis says. “We are going for full damages. If they want to manage risks, we’ll give them a risk to manage.” He hopes it doesn’t come to that, he says. It’s no way to treat an ally.

Atop the band’s war memorial is a metal sculpture paying homage to the famous Second World War photo of the American flag-raising at Iwo Jima. The sculpture shows soldiers hefting the flagpole into place. A woman and man in feathers and headdress are at their side. Sharing the burden.

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